Gillard defends proposal for East Timor asylum-seeker processing centre

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison at the National Press Club today. Picture: Ray StrangeSource: The Australian

JULIA Gillard was today clinging to her proposal to process refugees on East Timor as Liberal immigration spokesman Scott Morrison joined refugee groups in describing the plan as farcical.

The Prime Minister was forced to defend the plan today after it emerged the proposed regional processing centre, which she first unveiled before the last election, would not figure in a meeting of regional immigration and foreign ministers under way in Bali.

Mr Morrison told the National Press Club today that Labor's "farcical" East Timor solution was "dead in the water".

Refugee groups also attacked the government's East Timor solution, branding it "fairies at the bottom of the garden stuff".

As scepticism over the regional centre grows, high-level discussions on the proposal were effectively taken off the agenda at the Bali ministerial summit yesterday.

But Ms Gillard said on radio today that the centre would be examined in bilateral discussions between Australia and East Timor.

She said the Bali meeting was "never about the direct discussions between Australia and East Timor".

The growing number of refugees headed for Australian shores would be stopped only by substantive reform, Ms Gillard said.

"Focussing on the substance of things means we've got to recognise that this cannot be solved by simplistic slogans," she told ABC radio.

But Mr Morrison said the proposal was a diplomatic embarrassment.

"This government has been flogging this thing like a dead horse for nine months and it has been embarrassing to watch; to watch the procession of regional leaders forced to politely nod and engage in this conversation has been excruciating," he said.

"This is a proposal that was put forward as a talking point and its still just a talking point and it will never actually be implemented."

Refugee Council of Australia chief executive Paul Power told The Australian Online it was "time to move on", saying the proposal only detracted from efforts to secure regional co-operation.

"I just don't think anyone outside of the Australian government thinks the idea is helpful. I can't think of a single organisation or government that has expressed support for this idea," he said.

Asylum Seeker Resource Centre co-ordinator Pamela Curr said the proposal would be a joke if it wasn't such a tragedy.

"The problem is here and the problem is now people are dying in detention centres set up in Australia," she said.

"This is fairies at the bottom of the garden stuff; they are running around impoverished Pacific islands asking them to take our problems."

Immigration agent Marion Le said it was clear East Timor wasn't interested in taking asylum-seekers trying to reach Australia.

"This has been dead in the water since the day Julia Gillard announced it. Of course the Department of Immigration has been taking it seriously; they have a section looking at it but nothing seems to be happening," she said.

Asked if any reference to the Timor centre would be included in today's official communique from Bali, one senior official told The Australian: "No."

The omission is a snub to Canberra, which had framed Bali as the venue for discussing the idea, launched in July last year by the Prime Minister in an attempt to suppress as an election issue the surge of boatpeople arrivals.

Pressed on Dili's likely refusal of the centre, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen dodged the issue, claiming that the proposed East Timor centre was never to be considered in Bali.

"We've been very consistent that this is about a framework, this is about an assessment centre," he said.

"But the location of an assessment centre is for bilateral discussion, not for discussion through the Bali meeting."

Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd also moved to manage expectations about the summit.

"There are no easy fixes in this business. We're working our way through each of the issues," he said.

In October, Mr Bowen said he would have a "concrete proposal" for a regional processing centre before the Bali meeting.

His statement echoed Mr Rudd, who in September told parliament the processing centre plan would "form the subject of discussions when the Bali Process meeting is held in the months ahead".

East Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta continues to discuss aspects of the proposal with Australian officials, but the nation's powerful Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, has privately dismissed it.

It is understood Australian officials have started sounding out other governments in the region about whether they might host a centre.


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